As the population of the UAE grows more conscious of fitness and well-being, an increasing number of meal-delivery companies are opening to tap into the market. These businesses provide healthy, fully catered meals, three times a day, with snacks in between.
The idea is to encourage people to eat small meals more frequently, increasing the body's metabolism and preventing bouts of binge eating.
At Dh2,000 to Dh3,000 per person per month, the services may seem expensive - but the truth is, subscribing can be cheaper than eating out regularly.
Right Bite, which opened in Dubai in 2004 and now serves customers in Sharjah and Ajman, is one option that has seen an increase in the demand for its services.
"It is convenient and cost-effective, especially for bachelors and couples, providing them with a variety of meal options that leave them feeling good," said Right Bite's managing director, Nathalie Haddad, a nutritionist.
Kcal, a healthy-eating cafe and delivery service that opened in Dubai's Jumeirah Lakes Towers last July, offers dishes such as hamburger and red beef curry, all under 300 calories and costing around Dh40 each. And while most options require a weigh-in and a chat to a nutritionist, Kcal goes further by requiring customers of its Kcal Extra delivery service to undergo a comprehensive medical test so its team can tailor personalised diet and exercise programmes.
The idea behind this well-rounded approach? Prevention is better than cure.
"It's important to remember that it's not all about what the body looks like on the outside," said Kcal's managing partner Mark Carroll. "The main objective of the tests is encouraging people to be proactive and accountable for their own health. We are trying to raise awareness on the dangers of high cholesterol and poorly managed blood sugars."
It's the kind of comprehensive approach all meal-delivery companies should be taking, according to Dr Shereen Habib, a general practitioner in Dubai.
"Blood tests are very important and should be part of their routine," she said, but emphasised that it was up to the consumer to be careful: programmes branded as "healthy eating" could be more focused on counting calories.
While the popularity of these meal-delivery services could be attributed to the high disposable incomes of people in the UAE, Habib thinks their marketability is fuelled more by lifestyle and convenience rather than cost.
"People are busy here, always on the go," she said. "It's a big single population. People feel it's easier to get someone else to cook what they think is a healthy meal for them, even if it's something simple."
Curious to see how effective these meal plans are, we tried out six bespoke food delivery companies in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Right Bite (Dubai)
When I began the month-long programme, I was immediately impressed by the diverse menu. Right Bite's philosophy is to restrict calorie intake without making you feel you're scrimping on taste or treats. With three small meals and two snacks a day, there was little chance of getting hungry.
However, snacks in the afternoon often included the likes of biscuits and cakes, which is great for those reluctant to let go of their sweet treats, but not ideal for people like me, who try to restrict sugar intake.
At the initial consultation, I was asked if I knew of any health problems and my body mass index was measured. On my first day, I enjoyed a tasty burger and wedges meal and the creatively put-together "strawberry breakfast burritos". Seeing the small portions certainly makes you reconsider your own helpings.
After a month, however, the meals had become monotonous. I was served strange concoctions such as fajitas with carrots and cauliflower and a curry with noodles and pine nuts. Every meal that featured chicken, no matter its style of cooking, had the same Italian-tasting herb marinade.
Although the overall food quality was good, it felt like a long month. I did appreciate that allowance was made for my wheat intolerance and decent alternatives were offered. I was, however, disappointed not to be called back for a final follow-up.
As it turns out, I lost around 1.5kg, which for someone starting off at 55kg was probably a healthy amount without risking the loss of muscle mass. A good way to start losing weight sensibly.
By the way, the one thing that sets Right Bite apart is its policy of collecting and recycling the many plastic dishes used each day.
Having started a new job involving more desk time than I've been used to, my food choices worsened, my exercise levels decreased and my waist line increased. Enter Kcal.
Following my initial consultation with its nutritionist, Andrew Picken, I was immediately impressed. Blood tests were taken, my lifestyle was discussed and weight-loss targets were set. These guys were serious. A weekly menu was tailored to my needs as Picken carefully manipulated my carbohydrate intake to maximise weight loss. When blood test results reported high cholesterol levels, my diet was amended immediately, introducing oats for breakfast and removing all red meat from my diet.
The food was always fresh and tasty. Favourite meals included salmon teriyaki and sesame hammour. Portion sizes were obviously smaller than I was used to, but the fact that I was now eating every three hours meant I rarely felt hungry. As a result, I never felt I was on a diet - in fact, my energy levels increased.
It was the support services behind the food that really impressed me, though. Weekly weigh-ins and consultations, the options of group exercise classes and personal training, a reliable delivery service and the obvious passion of the management to improve a population's health that continues to spiral really set Kcal apart.
The past month has been an education. I have gone from 91kg to 79kg (a 12kg drop) and from 16 to 9 per cent body fat - I can even see my abs. I look better, feel better, my clothes fit properly and I've found a new favourite takeaway menu.
Health Factory (Dubai)
If I were paying for a bespoke healthy eating menu, I really wouldn't expect to be given products I could buy for a fraction of the cost in the supermarket. On average, each of Health Factory's meals works out to around Dh35, and as such, a bowl of Kellogg's Special K cereal for breakfast comes at a hefty price.
The same goes for a sweet and sour chicken meal, consisting of a few pieces of chicken, courgette, pineapple and onion. This, too, is food that I had cooked with many more tasty sauces and interesting vegetables, even back in my student days. Nor do I expect a healthy snack to be a sugar-rich Alpen bar, made with butter no less.
Although I like the option of an à la carte menu for days when you struggle to find things you like, that too can only be dipped into so often before it gets tiresome, consisting mainly of sandwiches and either grilled meat or fish with vegetables. The menu lacked the creativity I would expect of a company competing against the likes of Kcal, to which I turned to during desperate days when I simply could not face another Health Factory meal. The programme also doesn't cater to my wheat intolerance, massively limiting my choices.
When a certain other company can make a healthy, huge, tasty beef burrito for under 300 kcal, I struggle to see why tiny meals in this programme, like that sweet and sour chicken, are still served at a whopping 490 kcal. The Thai chicken (so tough I struggled to cut it) with rice: 590 kcal (one kcal = 1,000 calories).
Salad alternatives were small and uninspired, consisting mainly of cheap iceberg lettuce and tomato. Again, a dish I could prepare far better myself. Conclusion: leaving the responsibility for your health and diet in someone else's hands is not always as wise or enjoyable as it seems.
Live'ly (Dubai and Abu Dhabi)
This company provides a convenient morning or evening delivery service packed with three meals and healthy snacks in between. While the portions were small and left me hungry for the first few days, I soon adjusted and the generous yogurts, fruit and bottled water helped stave off hunger pangs.
Breakfast was a disappointing slice of bread with a scraping of peanut butter or a minuscule portion of cereal, so I saved myself Dh500 a month by opting for the PM package instead, which included everything but the first meal of the day.
The lunches were three-course affairs with a salad starter followed by hearty stews, pizza, casseroles or baked fish fillet with vegetables. The meals included Arabic, Indian and Thai cuisine; favourites included the Arabic lentil soup mujaddarah, Thai ginger shrimp and the goat's cheese frittata.
As a pescatarian - not a phrase I expect to use often - I was often limited to one or two options per day but it was only towards the end of the month that the dishes started to become repetitive. Otherwise, they were delicious and wholesome, and left me feeling a lot less bloated.
Desserts were a bonus: I got to feast on cheesecake, cookies and baklava, a necessary treat as dinner often consisted of a negligible salad or small soup bowl with a sandwich. According to my fortnightly weigh-ins, I lost an average of 1kg on each visit, which would have been higher had I exercised the requisite three times a week.
A really satisfying option that does a great job in retraining your habits, whether it's rethinking portion sizes or limiting carbohydrates such as rice, pasta and bread. It is good value at Dh3,300 per month with discounts on renewal and an excellent Dh1,800 lunch-only option.
D-Club (Abu Dhabi)
Ann Marie McQueen
It was only a week into a demanding new job that I realised what was happening: eating almost exclusively at Starbucks and Così, spending many added hours at a desk and struggling to find any time to exercise was wreaking havoc with my midsection.
I had no time to cook and prepare the healthy food I love to eat and so, on the recommendation of an acquaintance, I tried D-Club. I had ordered lunch from them several times and always enjoyed it. Problem solved: at Dh2,200 a month I could get five work days' worth of meals and snacks. Although the company offered a weigh-in with a nurse, I was too busy to go. When I explained I wasn't really interested in losing weight, only in not gaining any, they agreed to skip it.
Once I got past my eco-horror at the vast amount of plastic packaging involved, I quite enjoyed arriving at work and picking up my bag of food for the day. I loved the porridge and egg dishes, and the frequent fresh crudités. I was never hungry.
My main problem with this and all meal delivery services, however, is that they just don't know how to make a good, multi-item salad. Instead, it's inevitably some ranch dressing, iceberg lettuce and a few sad tomatoes.
I also tired quickly of the vegetables, which seemed to consist of the same carrot, cauliflower and green-bean mixture. It was more meat than I was used to eating, and too often I opened up the package to see the same breaded chicken dish with ketchup on the side. But with its absence of cheese and most other dairy products, D-Club did the trick: it was fast, convenient and held off the dreaded weight gain. I even dropped a kilogram or two.
Bite Rite (Abu Dhabi)
Ann Marie McQueen
I looked forward to revisiting this company (not to be confused with Right Bite in Dubai). I had subscribed to its meal plan for a month soon after arriving in the capital more than three years ago - and quickly putting on the dreaded "Hummus 5".
Sadly, I was not a fan when I was paying for the meals, and things were only slightly better this time around when the company was providing them free for the purposes of this review. With an array of options that I did not have time to navigate, I told the nutritionist after my weigh-in what foods I didn't like and asked her to choose for me.
Some days were fine: herbed, scrambled eggs for breakfast, fresh juice, lots of yummy fresh fruit, grilled salmon and sautéed spinach. But there were also quite a few unappetising servings, and too often it was overcooked fish fillets in bland, mystery sauces or dry chicken. I was served strange tuna sandwiches for breakfast and a variety of tasteless, watery soups. Dh2,500 a month for five days of meal delivery per month; three personal training sessions included.